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Cruise Views

They'll Leave Their Hearts in Avalon

March 13, 1988|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers

AVALON — Many of Santa Catalina Island's residents are proud of their Moorish-style 1920s casino ballroom and dance palace, their palm-lined walkways, the red-tiled roofs on buildings and houses against a Mediterranean hillside, the flying fish and the buffalo.

However, these same residents are also proud that Catalina contributes to the area's cruise-ship picture as well, with this city a desperately needed port of call for the profitable mini-cruise market in Southern California.

Because of restrictions requiring foreign flag vessels sailing from U.S. ports to also call in at least one foreign port, the 740-passenger Azure Seas has steamed down to Ensenada for almost seven years.

Five years ago San Diego (passengers can't embark or disembark but may get off the ship for an afternoon) was added as a port of call to the four-day midweek cruise. With 35% repeat passengers it was time for something new, and Catalina was a great idea.

Early last October, Norwegian Caribbean Lines announced that Catalina would be a port of call when its 730-passenger Southward is repositioned to Los Angeles on May 2 for year-round three- and four-day cruises. The Southward is scheduled to call at the island twice a week--Thursday and Saturday.

Inaugural Visit

In mid-January, Admiral's Azure Seas, the first large cruise ship to call at Avalon, made its inaugural visit. It will anchor year round Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., shuttling passengers to shore by tender.

Also, Seattle-based Catamaran Cruises and its 48-passenger Executive Explorer, formerly part of the Exploration Cruise Lines fleet, late last summer announced Catalina as a regular port of call on three- and four-day autumn sailings out of San Diego. However, that itinerary fell by the wayside.

Ron Doutt, vice president of operations for the Santa Catalina Island Co., said the firm agreed to let large cruise ships call at Catalina, "because they asked us."

The community, however, is concerned about Saturdays during July and August, Doutt said.

Residents believe that cruise ship passengers "will impact in different ways" from the already heavy volume of summer weekend visitors that sometimes hits 10,000. If every passenger aboard both ships comes ashore at the same time on a Saturday, it will add 1,500 more people, he added.

Many passengers will probably take one of three shore excursions, all $25 or less: city and casino tour, glass-bottom boat ride or an island tour to view the buffalo, a herd of 400 that began with 14 brought over for the filming of Western author Zane Grey's "The Vanishing American" in 1924.

Other passengers will shop or wander around town; some will rent bicycles or electric golf carts for sightseeing. Almost all are expected to go back to the ship for lunch, rather than pay in restaurants.

Strong Appeal

Catalina has strong appeal for first-time cruisers because, in addition to being a new destination, there would be more time ashore for people uncertain about how they'll feel about being on a ship.

The Azure Seas offers good value for its per diem fares, costing $102 per person for a bottom inside double off season without air conditioning to $250 per person a day, including round-trip air fare from 89 North American cities.

Growing Market

Bob Mahmarian, Admiral's vice president of sales and marketing, said the U.S. short cruise market has grown from four ships carrying 2,700 passengers a week in 1983 to nine ships carrying 8,500.

Things are going so well, in fact, that Admiral has contracted with Alsthom Chantiers de l'Atlantique in St. Nazaire, France, builder of Sovereign of the Seas, for a new ship.

Project name for the 2,000-passenger, 44,000-ton, Liberian-registry vessel is Future Seas. "It's being built for the '90s," Mahmarian said, and delivery is anticipated in April, 1990.

The new ship will emphasize its casino and night life, health club, jogging track and spa facilities. Some luxury staterooms will feature verandas, and children and teen-agers will have their own activity centers.

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